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Contemporary Arab, Iranian & Turkish Art

Identity in 21st Century Iran at Aga Khan Museum

No one who has visited the Aga Khan Museum can deny the magnificence of the architecture. A masterpiece by Fumihiko Maki, it is centred on the concept of light, and from 4 February for four months, this oasis of light hosts two special shows that highlight topical and important themes.

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SHIRIN ALIABADI, MISS HYBRID 3, 2008. C-PRINT. © SHIRIN ALIABADI. COURTESY: MOHAMMED AFKHAMI FOUNDATION.

The first show addresses the visual and material culture of Syria over 5000 years. 'Syria: A Living History' is co-curated by Dr Filiz Cakir Phillip and Professor Nasser Rabat, and reveals to us the country as a mosaic of ethnicities, cultures, religions and sects. Syria, whose plight has touched many hearts, is seen here not just as a hotbed of political issues, but also as a place of glorious artistic achievement - in glass, stone, ceramic, and metal artefacts, as well as contemporary paintings, and sculptures from the 19th century and beyond. The concept of 'home' is re-examined in this sensitive show, and special objects such as an exquisite inlaid backgammon set remind us of Syria's rich artistic heritage.

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ALI BANISADR, WE HAVEN’T LANDED ON EARTH YET, 2012. OIL ON LINEN. © ALI BANISADR. COURTESY: MOHAMMED AFKHAMI FOUNDATION.

The historicity of the Syrian show contrasts nicely with a totally different, adjacent exhibition on contemporary Iranian art. 'Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians' curated by Dr Fereshteh Daftary, delves into a wholly different analysis of another rich heritage. Twenty-three artists have been thoughtfully selected from the collection of financier and art patron Mohamed Afkhami and displayed beautifully in the main exhibition space. Most of the works are iconic and contemporary, dating from 1998 to the present. Probing subjects such as gender, politics, war, religion and spirituality, they are realised in a variety of media, from painting and sculpture to photography and video installation. The narratives that emerge in the works have been informed by internal circumstances in Iran and by the role the country plays in the larger world, evidencing the artists' strategies for surmounting the adversities of our time. Through critique, subterfuge, humour, spirituality, and poetry, these artists address the realities that affect them.

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MOHAMMED EHSAI, MOHABBAT (KINDNESS), 2006. OIL AND SILVER LEAF ON CANVAS. © MOHAMMED EHSAI. COURTESY: MOHAMMED AFKHAMI FOUNDATION.

I was spoiled for choice in picking a favourite so high is the quality of each piece, but the play and cross-reference of the works that address mysticism in the show, fascinated me. YZ Kami's Black Dome for example - one of his strongest works in this series - is almost kinetic in the way it pulls the viewer into a dark yet beguiling vortex, a well of meditation through the repetition of pattern, and a homage to esoteric belief.

If Toronto was not on your itinerary this spring, you would be well-advised to make it a destination!

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